Patrick Rosevear visits a faux Eiffel Tower in a Paris-styled white elephant property project built in Zhejiang province. Photo: Supplied

Residents in Patrick Rosevear’s apartment block in Beijing are part of a pushback that is forcing President Xi Jinping to loosen tough Covid controls

Patrick Rosevear had always been planning to return home to Wellington for Christmas. “I kind of escaped the day that Beijing was locked down.”

The Kiwi lawyer’s flight from mainland China came as protests mounted against Covid controls that many blamed for the deaths of 10 people in an apartment block in Xinjiang; firefighters were reportedly prevented from accessing the building. Neighbours in Rosevear’s apartment complex argued heatedly with the Party apparatchiks trying to lock them down; in the building next door video shows residents kicking down steel barricades erected to keep them inside.

Some analysts feared a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown on protests. Instead, president Xi Jinping is bowing to popular pressure. His Govt is set to announce an easing of its Covid-19 quarantine protocols in the coming days and a reduction in mass testing, sources told Reuters. “I think the government desperately wants to pivot but they’ve stitched themselves up with their previous messaging about how dangerous Covid is,” Rosevear says.

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President Xi’s challenge was heightened by the death this week of his predecessor Jiang Zemin, aged 96. Chinese state newspapers and popular ecommerce superapps and websites adopted sombre, black-and-white colour schemes in his honour of Jiang Zemin, but the Financial Times says China’s official organs are grappling with how to handle the legacy of the former leader.

His 13-year tenure followed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre – that’s why his legacy is proving so complicated for today’s leadership. Jiang improved ties with the west and wider world, and deepened the economic reforms begun by his predecessor Deng Xiaoping.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, emeritus professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, told the FT that the Communist Party would probably spin Jiang’s role in cracking down on dissidents in the aftermath of Tiananmen and against the Falun Gong spiritual group in its memorialising. “Maybe there was less personality cult and leadership was more collective, but they are going to erase that,” he added.

That’s because Xi has taken a much harder line. He has tightened controls on China’s 1.4 billion residents and, indeed, on Chinese citizens around the world. That’s been most clearly manifested in crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong, human rights abuses against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang, and controls on Chinese media domestically and internationally.

The latest protests against Xi’s zero Covid policy might seem relatively insignificant by comparison.

The numbers have been small, and it’s not just the police forces of authoritarian nations that have felt compelled to crackdown on protests challenging the management of Covid. New Zealand police moved in on anti-vaccine mandate protesters at Parliament, at the start of this year, with far greater force than any seen used in the People’s Republic in the past week.

But the protests in China have proved potent, simply because they are so uncharacteristic of a population that has, until now, been broadly supportive of its Government’s tight Covid management strategy. Health authorities announcing the easing of lockdowns in their areas have not mentioned the protests, which ranged from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

Cases nationwide remain near record highs but several cities have lifted their lockdowns in recent days, and a top official said the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening.

The new measures to be unveiled include a reduction in the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, sources have told Reuters.

Patrick Rosevear practices calligraphy in Wudangshan in Hubei province. Photo: Supplied

Patrick Rosevear is a New Zealand qualified lawyer, who has lived in Beijing for most of the past 10 years. He works in the fields of intellectual property protection, general litigation, and a lot of labour law, especially around Covid. He represents expats who haven’t been paid properly, due to lockdowns.

He also organises rugby leagues in Beijing and the south of China, that increasingly connect Chinese rugby players with expats.

He had been home in New Zealand when Covid first struck, but returned to Beijing on March 19, 2020 – with China at the epicentre of the emerging coronavirus. “I went back into the belly of the beast,” he says. 

“It was a pretty scary decision at the time. But after a few weeks, I realised it was probably actually not a bad decision. It was all happening very quickly. It wasn’t clear at all where the safest place to be was, but I decided that my life is in China. And I think that everywhere in the world was going to be a bit of a mess.

He believed international news reports about China’s lockdowns have overstated the severity of the restrictions. “I often read the world media about China, and think, this is just not right. It’s not a clear picture, and it’s not balanced. I keep reading articles that half of China’s in lockdown.

“Just to clear this up, I had to quarantine when I came back into China in March 2020, for two weeks. But since then, I’ve had to do only four days of lockdown in my apartment, because we had a close contact of a case in my building. Apart from that, I have had no lockdown whatsoever. 

Patrick Rosevear runs out as openside flanker for the Beijing Ducks. Photo: Supplied

“For the most part, my friends across China and in Beijing have had a pretty good couple of years. We’ve been playing rugby, we’ve been going out for dinner with our friends, we’ve been going to bars, having wines and watching the rugby, watching the soccer World Cup.

“Other cities have obviously fared worse. My friends in Shanghai, they all did 60 days of lockdowns in their apartments, 30 days of which they could leave their apartment door and walk outside in their apartment grounds or their community grounds.”

This year, though, China began tightening its restrictions even as the rest of the world was loosening up.

“There was a soft lockdown in Beijing during during May and June, where bars and restaurants were not able to offer dine-in services for about six weeks. That was pretty dry. It was nice weather at that time of year in Beijing, so we just sort of went outside and enjoyed life.”

Beijing is now going through further lockdowns, he says. “When the Xinjiang fires happened, the apartment complex next to me was locked down already because I think they’d had a couple of cases there. There were steel barriers outside the apartment doors to stop people leaving. Some people came down and just kicked them down furiously.”

Rosevear lives in a community of 10 apartment blocks, each about 32 floors high. In total, there are more than 2000 people. The community is overseen by a committee and a shequ management group – essentially a low level branch of government. “They just take commands from the government and are managed by the government, doing all the Covid management stuff. So they’re extremely busy compared with normal times, I guess because that they’ve had added the Covid control duties.

“Just after I left, they locked down our apartments – it was going to be for a few days. And people couldn’t figure out why there was a lockdown of the community, if there were no cases. They were asking, tell us some of the positive cases. It’s very clear you can’t lock down a community if there’s no case. People were not happy … And so you can see people really pushing back against some of the restrictions.

“I just escaped across the border to Hong Kong, on Thursday night. So I got out just as things are sort of erupting,” he says. “I was actually planning on getting out of mainland China around now to make my way back to New Zealand for Christmas, with a bit of travel in between. So it just sort of happened that I kind of escaped the day that  Beijing was locked down.

“I think most people who live in China, particularly who understand the outside world, would have chosen to remain in China up until this year. They would have thought, China is a good place to be, comparative to other parts of parts of the world.

“The tables are turned a little bit, this year. Obviously, other countries have kind of gotten over it. I think transitioning from zero-Covid to non zero-Covid is a really nasty process for every country. And it will be a particularly nasty process for China with its scale and size. And I’m very happy to not be there during this period.”

Rozevear says it’s a huge part of the government’s legitimacy play that it has controlled Covid very successfully, and has saved lives. “The flip-side is that’s made the population extremely scared of Covid. You talk to the everyday taxi driver in Beijing, for example, and they very much support zero-Covid. I always ask them, I don’t debate with them, I just want to hear their points of view.

“For me, from my perspective, I’m an international citizen, I like to travel. I’m 35 years old, fit and healthy, and I’d rather just catch Covid than have these restrictions on my life. I know that. However from the perspective of the everyday 60-year-old Beijing taxi driver, there’s no way that they want to get rid of zero-Covid.

“I think the government desperately wants to pivot but they’ve stitched themselves up with their previous messaging about how dangerous Covid is. On one hand, they’re implementing policies that are more loose and more conducive to Covid spreading. On the other hand, they’re speaking the words about wanting to keep zero-Covid. I just think it’s not true. I think we should judge them by their actions, not by their words.”

Rosevear says the protests have had an impact. “A good proportion of people are very, very fed up with the restrictions, the restrictions on their personal freedom to leave their house or to work or to make money, or send their kids to school. And some people have become vocal.”

“I think for sure the lifestyle in Beijing is very restricted. It’s not a lot of fun. It’s nice to be out of mainland China and see so many smiles and faces. People in China are very, very suppressed at the moment, no one’s making money. 

“It’s really difficult economically. So everyone’s really struggling. Rugby has been canceled. We can’t book fields, we can’t travel to play against opposition. So my own life’s been affected. Some people are really, really weary, really tired of restrictions. Everyone’s just not living their best life at the moment. And so I’m more than happy to spend a little bit of time outside of China for for a while.

He hopes that will encourage an increased openness that allows him to return to Beijing next year.

“I think China will bounce back – the fundamentals are very solid. I think the government, from their actions, is trying to get away from zero-Covid – which is not a good thing if you’re an unvaccinated 80-plus-year old, but it is a good thing if you are a person like myself who is keen to push on with life.

“I’m positive that China will become more open. And my lifestyle there will be unrestricted. And I’m positive that the international community will bounce back from here.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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